Review: A Hero of France, by Alan Furst
Random House, 2016. 234 pp. $27
If you’ve read any of Furst’s fourteen books, the time and place will be familiar: Paris, 1941, the City of Light under a blackout imposed by the German Occupation. It’s early spring, so America has yet to declare war, and Britain fights alone against German power at its high-water mark. Trying to strike back at the German hinterland, British bombers overfly French territory, and many don’t make it home. Consequently, increasing numbers of British airmen are parachuting into Occupied territory, and the nascent Resistance does its best to keep them out of German hands and send them to safety in neutral Spain.
One such Resistance cell operates in Paris, under a man code-named Mathieu. Like the setting, he too is typical Furst–worldly, mature, resourceful, committed, without swagger, doing what he does because he thinks someone has to, refusing to judge those of his countrymen who want no part of it. Oh, and did I say that beautiful women find him irresistible? Many things are rationed in Furst’s Europe, but sex isn’t.
Naturally, the occupiers and their French toadies do their best to crack the Resistance. But luckily for Mathieu and his operatives, the Occupation is new enough so that the German Army and the French police undertake the counterespionage; the Gestapo remains largely in the wings. As a result, the bad guys aren’t as vicious and uncompromising as they might be, especially since many of the French contingent would rather not arrest their countrymen. The real danger lies in ordinary civilians looking to make money by informing, and they can be persistent.
Mathieu . . . saw what was indeed a strange-looking man, or, rather, a strange-looking boy, barely in his twenties. Standing at the bar and drinking a glass of wine, he had dark skin and dark eyes, wore a buttoned-up overcoat that was both much too tight and much too long, a hat with a wide, flat brim and a low crown, also flat, to which he’d added a bow tie that might once have belonged to a café waiter. With a pencil line of a mustache that traced his upper lip, he struck Mathieu as a boy dressed up to play his father.
But this guy, though dangerous, isn’t the real threat. The real threat is a German police inspector imported from Hamburg to crack the Resistance cells operating out of Paris, and he’s got people working for him who are much smarter than anyone Mathieu has come up against.
Furst moves his story rapidly, and, as always, his narrative represents the definition of “no; and furthermore.” Plans backfire thanks to inattention or nerves or plain bad luck. What I like about A Hero of France is that whatever heroism you see is of the quiet variety and seemingly more genuine for it. The narrative also gives the bad guys their due; of the several minor characters who come through clearly, the German police inspector and his chief mole stand out for me.
Furst’s trademark atmospheric descriptions are in full force too. You feel the blackout, the tension in the streets, a divided nation about to discover that when it comes to privation, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Furst suggests the political struggle between the Resistance and its British contacts–we won’t call them allies–and the pressures under which the French administration tries to remain intact. With equal, admirable economy, he makes a key historical point, that the British were so desperate for air crews that they sent escaped fliers back into the air. (This contrasted with subsequent American policy, which grounded escapees on the logic that they might be recognized if recaptured, compromising them and anyone who had helped them.)
All this is fine. But I still pine for Furst’s earliest works, which felt fresher, more fleshed out, and more gripping. They were also much longer. Maybe that kind of book is passé or unprofitable or un-something. But A Hero of France has tons of narrators, few of whom come alive, and, despite the “no; and furthermore,” inconvenient circumstances sometimes resolve themselves in ways they wouldn’t have in earlier books. If Furst is trying to suggest that he can do this because it’s only spring 1941, and the very, very bad guys aren’t in charge yet, I’m not buying.
Paris is Paris, and we can always have that, as Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. But certain things can be too familiar and leave us wanting more.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.